|Why the Republican Crackup Is Bad for America
by Robert Reich
TWO WEEKS BEFORE the Iowa caucuses, the Republican crackup
threatens the future of the Grand Old Party more profoundly
than at any time since the GOP's eclipse in 1932. That's bad
The crackup isn't just Romney the smooth versus Gingrich the
Not just House Republicans who just scotched the deal to
continue payroll tax relief and extended unemployment
insurance benefits beyond the end of the year, versus Senate
Republicans who voted overwhelmingly for it.
Not just Speaker John Boehner, who keeps making agreements he
can't keep, versus Majority Leader Eric Cantor, who keeps
making trouble he can't control.
And not just venerable Republican senators like Indiana's
Richard Lugar, a giant of foreign policy for more than three
decades, versus primary challenger state treasurer Richard
Mourdock, who apparently misplaced and then rediscovered $320
million in state tax revenues.
Some describe the underlying conflict as Tea Partiers versus
the Republican establishment. But this just begs the question
of who the Tea Partiers really are and where they came
The underlying conflict lies deep into the nature and
structure of the Republican Party. And its roots are very
As Michael Lind has noted, today's Tea Party is less an
ideological movement than the latest incarnation of an angry
white minority - predominantly Southern, and mainly rural -
that has repeatedly attacked American democracy in order to
get its way.
It's no mere coincidence that the states responsible for
putting the most Tea Party representatives in the House are
all former members of the Confederacy. Of the Tea Party
caucus, twelve hail from Texas, seven from Florida, five from
Louisiana, and five from Georgia, and three each from South
Carolina, Tennessee, and border- state Missouri.
Others are from border states with significant Southern
populations and Southern ties. The four Californians in the
caucus are from the inland part of the state or Orange
County, whose political culture has was shaped by Oklahomans
and Southerners who migrated there during the Great
This isn't to say all Tea Partiers are white, Southern or
rural Republicans - only that these characteristics define
the epicenter of Tea Party Land.
And the views separating these Republicans from Republicans
elsewhere mirror the split between self- described Tea
Partiers and other Republicans.
In a poll of Republicans conducted for CNN last September,
nearly six in ten who identified themselves with the Tea
Party say global warming isn't a proven fact; most other
Republicans say it is.
Six in ten Tea Partiers say evolution is wrong; other
Republicans are split on the issue. Tea Party Republicans are
twice as likely as other Republicans to say abortion should
be illegal in all circumstances, and half as likely to
support gay marriage.
Tea Partiers are more vehement advocates of states' rights
than other Republicans. Six in ten Tea Partiers want to
abolish the Department of Education; only one in five other
Republicans do. And Tea Party Republicans worry more about
the federal deficit than jobs, while other Republicans say
reducing unemployment is more important than reducing the
In other words, the radical right wing of today's GOP isn't
that much different from the social conservatives who began
asserting themselves in the Party during the 1990s, and,
before them, the "Willie Horton" conservatives of the 1980s,
and, before them, Richard Nixon's "silent majority."
Through most of these years, though, the GOP managed to
contain these white, mainly rural and mostly Southern,
radicals. After all, many of them were still Democrats. The
conservative mantle of the GOP remained in the West and
Midwest - with the libertarian legacies of Ohio Senator
Robert A. Taft and Barry Goldwater, neither of whom was a
barn-burner - while the epicenter of the Party remained in
New York and the East.
But after the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as the South began
its long shift toward the Republican Party and New York and
the East became ever more solidly Democratic, it was only a
matter of time. The GOP's dominant coalition of big business,
Wall Street, and Midwest and Western libertarians was losing
The watershed event was Newt Gingrich's takeover of the
House, in 1995. Suddenly, it seemed, the GOP had a
personality transplant. The gentlemanly conservatism of House
Minority Leader Bob Michel was replaced by the bomb- throwing
antics of Gingrich, Dick Armey, and Tom DeLay.
Almost overnight Washington was transformed from a place
where legislators tried to find common ground to a war zone.
Compromise was replaced by brinkmanship, bargaining by
obstructionism, normal legislative maneuvering by threats to
close down government - which occurred at the end of 1995.
Before then, when I'd testified on the Hill as Secretary of
Labor, I had come in for tough questioning from Republican
senators and representatives - which was their job. After
January 1995, I was verbally assaulted. "Mr. Secretary, are
you a socialist?" I recall one of them asking.
But the first concrete sign that white, Southern radicals
might take over the Republican Party came in the vote to
impeach Bill Clinton, when two-thirds of senators from the
South voted for impeachment. (A majority of the Senate, you
may recall, voted to acquit.)
America has had a long history of white Southern radicals who
will stop at nothing to get their way - seceding from the
Union in 1861, refusing to obey Civil Rights legislation in
the 1960s, shutting the government in 1995, and risking the
full faith and credit of the United States in 2010.
Newt Gingrich's recent assertion that public officials aren't
bound to follow the decisions of federal courts derives from
the same tradition.
This stop-at-nothing radicalism is dangerous for the GOP
because most Americans recoil from it. Gingrich himself
became an object of ridicule in the late 1990s, and many
Republicans today worry that if he heads the ticket the Party
will suffer large losses.
It's also dangerous for America. We need two political
parties solidly grounded in the realities of governing. Our
democracy can't work any other way.
[Robert Reich is Chancellor's Professor of Public Policy at
the University of California at Berkeley. He has served in
three national administrations, most recently as secretary of
labor under President Bill Clinton. He has written thirteen
books, including The Work of Nations, Locked in the Cabinet,
Supercapitalism, and his most recent book, Aftershock. His
"Marketplace" commentaries can be found on publicradio.com
and iTunes. He is also Common Cause's board chairman.]